The past year has been a transformative one for Mattel’s Thomas & Friends brand, from this summer’s 70-minute UK film Journey Beyond Sodor, to the brand’s foray into the infant toy space with Railway Pals. Now, the 72-year-old brand is taking on a whole new course of action with an entirely new show format and licensing line designed to meet the needs of a more diverse, internet-savvy preschool audience.
“We have an audience of kids that is growing up in a very different world than 70 years ago, and even 10 years ago, in terms of what they’re seeing both online and on television,” says Christopher Keenan, SVP of global content and executive producer at Mattel Creations. “We wanted to make sure that we’re delivering content that’s going to really entertain them and maintain their interest and engagement.”
To better portray diversity in the show’s upcoming 26 x 11-minute 22nd season, entitled Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures, Mattel decided to have its titular character travel outside of Sodor for the first time to places like China, Australia, India, Brazil and Africa. The new season, which will bow next fall on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu in the US, Discovery Kids (LatAm), Mexico (Televisa), ABC TV (Australia), NHK (Japan), SuperRTL (Germany) and Milkshake (UK), will have a brighter look with more vibrant colors to reflect the places the characters are visiting. (Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures made its world premiere this past weekend at MIP Junior in Cannes, France.)
Next summer’s 80-minute Big World Big Adventures: The Movie, meanwhile, will see Thomas meet new female engines Nia and Rebecca that will join Emily, Clara and Annabelle, bringing the overall cast closer to a 50-50 gender split. “We have an enormous girl audience and we really wanted to make sure we were serving them,” says Keenan. “So we’re definitely working toward gender balancing the show a bit more.”
Beyond the look and characters, Big World! Big Adventures’ formatting will be entirely new. The episodes will still be 11 minutes long, but will be broken into seven-minute stories with four extra minutes reserved for a variety of segments like sing-along karaoke songs, music videos or Thomas talking directly with the audience about lessons learned during a particular episode.
“The idea was that in watching an episode of Thomas, you’re treated not only to a more fast-paced funnier show, but there will be other pieces for the audience to enjoy, as they might online, and get more out of that 11-minute episode than they previously would have,” says Keenan. Other formatting changes include the elimination of a narrator—instead, Thomas will talk directly to the audience. There will also be added fantasy elements for the first time, where Thomas’ smoke will billow out and form a thought bubble with sequences representing his fears and daydreams.
Mattel’s licensing efforts will keep up with all of the on-screen changes. Key artwork for main products tied to next fall’s season will be brighter and more colorful, and there will be new wooden and plastic playsets featuring the new places shown on screen as well as wood, plastic and die-cast trains. New items will be available at major retailers like Target, Walmart and Amazon in fall 2018. However, some retailers will be sticking with the classic Thomas look, such as Pottery Barn, which just rolled out a child’s bedroom line including lamps, bedding, rugs and more with a vintage aesthetic.
“We’re using this as an opportunity to re-launch the brand. So we’re looking for a lot of new partners to come on board across all categories and all distribution channels across physical retail and e-commerce,” says Kate Schlomann, who serves as brand and franchise lead for Thomas & Friends. (Mattel will continue to work with the majority of its current licensing partners, Schlomann says.)
Even though the changes are hinged on modernizing Thomas, Keenan and Schlomann are still very aware that they have a lot of traditionalist fans. Keenan made sure that all the changes wouldn’t overtake what people really loved about the classic Thomas IP, which are the life lessons. Schlomann, meanwhile, says she wants to make sure the new licensing program includes lots of trains for the enthusiast collectors and that they are all as accurate as possible.